“PLAY THIS ALBUM LOUD” commands the back cover of the Pretenders’ self-titled first album. The liner notes of Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend are a bit gentler—“DON’T BE AFRAID TO PLAY IT LOUD”—but the message is the same: you must crank the volume to unlock the album’s magic.
And somehow it’s true. Listening to loud music feels good, and does give you a magical sense of liberation. In fact, pop music itself is, from one viewpoint, a history of artists using ever-louder sound technology (such as electric guitars and amplifiers) to create this transcendent feeling. Technically speaking, louder volumes allow you to hear the entire frequency range in the music—the highs (treble) and the lows (bass)—thus letting you experience the music as the artists intended.
While loud volume has helped drive a music revolution, it has also helped give a population of music lovers ringing in their ears, or tinnitus. If you’ve been to a loud concert or positioned yourself in front of a club’s PA system, you know what I’m talking about: it’s that ringing, buzzing, whizzing sound you keep hearing—even after the music is over and relative quiet returns.
Any source of loud noise—be it Marshall stacks, jet engines, industrial machinery, or those benign-looking white earbuds—can cause tinnitus and potentially damage your hearing, according to Robert Sweetow, Ph.D., head of the department of audiology at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center. “Tinnitus has a thousand causes, but in every case it is a warning of possible hearing damage and should be taken seriously,” he says.
Tinnitus and noise-induced hearing loss occur when the delicate hair nerve cells that line the inner ear (or cochlea) undergo repeated trauma from loud sound vibrations. This causes the hair cells to either die or misfire as they carry signals to the brain via the auditory nerve.
For most people, an occasional bout of tinnitus is nothing to worry about—a good night’s sleep, and your ears bounce back. But musicians, audio professionals, live-music fans, headphone users, and others exposed frequently to loud noise are at particular risk for developing tinnitus and some hearing loss, particularly in the mid- and higher-range frequencies. It’s wise to increase your awareness about safe listening levels now, because severe or even permanent tinnitus—in which the ringing never stops—is not uncommon, and its onset can be both physically and psychologically debilitating.
According to Sweetow, “Listening safely is not just determined by how loud a sound is, but by the combination of how loud and how long your exposure is to that sound.” With that in mind, here are some commonsense guidelines for safe headphone usage:
• If you use headphones frequently, take plenty of breaks.
• If your ears hurt after using headphones, you’re listening too loudly.
• Never fall asleep with headphones on.
• Don’t turn headphones up to mask external noise such as a a loud subway car.
• Consider purchasing in-ear-canal headphones (see page 28 of Playlist magazine). These might seem dangerous since you wear them deep inside your ears, but just the opposite is true: they seal out external noise, so you tend to listen at much lower volumes. For the best seal possible, get custom-fitted earpieces for these ‘phones.
And always wear earplugs at loud concerts. Just as you can have an audiologist fit you with a pair of molded-to-fit earpieces for your headphones, you can get custom-fitted earplugs. These provide the most protection and the best listening experience—so you can bang your head safely.
If you do notice persistent ringing in your ears, don’t panic, says Sweetow—give it a couple of weeks to calm down: “Tinnitus cases don’t usually get worse. But there’s an emotional component, and by focusing on it too much, you can get caught in a vicious cycle of anxiety. If your symptoms persist, see an ear doctor and have your hearing tested by an audiologist.”
While there’s no cure for tinnitus, Sweetow says, “In almost all cases, the brain eventually habituates [itself] to the noise, and after a while you won’t notice it anymore.”
STEVEN ROBACK has recorded and produced 18 albums since 1982. He is the author of Pro Tools 6 for Macintosh and Windows (Peachpit Press, 2004).